The Heinz Endowments, a grantmaking organization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has long been viewed in the region as a community pillar. But while the Heinz Endowments purports to fund needed, worthwhile enhancements to the wellbeing of western Pennsylvania, many of the organization’s grants do just the opposite, working to stoke baseless public fear and paint some of the region’s most vital industries as villains. In the period from 2008 to 2016 the Heinz Endowments contributed over $120 million in environmental grants, as documented by Big Green, Inc., a project of the Institute for Energy Research. While some of the recipients are working toward meaningful environmental progress, such as in local air quality, tens of millions of dollars went to organizations more intent upon stymying economic development than furthering any justifiable conception of environmental quality.
The natural gas industry, despite being largely responsible for the region’s resurgent vitality and improving air quality, has become a target of Heinz Endowments-funded environmental groups. Hundreds of the endowments’ grants focus on lobbying, regulation, community engagement, and other activism pertaining to natural gas issues.
Heinz has long been a household name in the region, funding the arts, recreation areas, museums, and a long list of other community institutions. But in recent years the organization has strayed from its mission, and has funded instead a series of dubious efforts to raise public fear around positive economic advancements in the region. The Heinz Endowments has three of what it deems “priority strategic funding areas.” They are: Creativity, Learning, and Sustainability.
Why then does it work so hard to oppose natural gas? The Marcellus Shale boom has been a display of Pennsylvania at its best, and has exemplified the creativity, learning, and sustainability Heinz endorses. Innovation, hard work, and stewardship of resources have been its hallmarks, and it has been a rising-tide-that-lifts-all-boats for many economically struggling locales in the region. Pennsylvania’s natural gas resources and the companies working to develop them have created thousands of high-paying jobs and invested millions in further growth. With the boom new businesses have sprung up, landowners have gained a new income source, and energy has gotten cleaner and cheaper for all.
Heinz Grant Activities
Despite these benefits, the Heinz Endowments has granted funds to promote cumbersome laws designed to crowd out energy producers, to stimulate public anxiety, and to spread disinformation, as when it explicitly funded an expansion of the website Fractracker.org, a notoriously dishonest broker.
The endowments have also funded numerous grants in recent years around air quality concerns in Pennsylvania—everything from seeking regulation to raising public alarm—but what this work fails to take into account is that Pennsylvania air quality today is better by far than it was before widespread natural gas extraction in the state began. In the period of evaluation, the Heinz Endowments donated more than $15 million to hinder hydraulic fracturing in particular.
Additionally, the purposes of many of their grants are internally inconsistent. For example, a $120,000 grant to PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center in 2015 was “(t)o augment public education and civic engagement to address air pollution and shale development in the region.” This framing insinuates that shale development is an air quality issue, when in reality it is an air quality solution. Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning and least air polluting heating sources available, and its widespread use has contributed to bettering air quality in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Other grants, for example several to Netcentric Campaigns, “support community networks in shale-impacted regions in Pennsylvania.” This grant language makes it seem as though shale development has been some sort of detriment to communities, when quite the opposite is true. The natural gas industry brings new economic dynamism to small towns and cities across the state, and with this money comes a renaissance of small businesses on Main Street that benefit from the new commerce. Organizations like Netcentric Campaigns appeal to the mainstream with terms like “support community networks,” but speak to their base of donors about a “fight against the gas industry,” making clear their intentions.
Many of the Heinz Endowments’ energy and environment-related grants are for political purposes that are nakedly at odds with the region’s prosperity. In 2015 a Heinz grant supported a so-called climate justice rally, run by Pittsburgh 350, a local chapter of 350.org, the far-left group that advocates for total abolition of natural gas, coal, and oil use in the immediate future. Such a stance is not only contrary to the values of Pennsylvania, but it is also against human values altogether.
Pittsburgh 350 is not the only wholly anti-energy organization that the endowments gave money to. They also funded EarthJustice, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other national groups advocating for a near term full abandonment of reliable energy resources. Closer to home, the Heinz Endowments has funneled millions of dollars to deceitful groups like the Center for Coalfield Justice. The Center for Coalfield Justice demonizes both coal and gas development, describing hydraulic fracturing as “destructive,” “extremely invasive,” and “threatening public health and the environment.” Another Pennsylvania-based organization on the Heinz payroll is the Clean Air Council, which received over $1.3 million from the Heinz Endowments to harass the shale gas industry in western Pennsylvania. Supporting ill-conceived, ill-intentioned political outfits like this is no way to strengthen the Heinz Endowments’ home region and is anything but sustainable. It is impossible to sustain a goal that cannot be obtained without destroying peoples’ access to energy.
The Heinz Endowments’ funding of a systematic vilification of natural gas is costing the region dearly. For every excessive regulation that Heinz grant recipients lobby for, there is an economic harm. A farmer who was getting a check every month for the gas under his land stops receiving it, and can’t afford the tractor he’d been planning to buy that year. The same thing happens to people throughout the community and suddenly new businesses that opened up following the shale boom begin to shutter their doors. Blight returns to revitalized neighborhoods.
Of course, not all of the Heinz Endowments’ environmental grants support objectionable causes. Some of their work is perfectly reasonable and beneficial to the community. Building bike paths, revitalizing the Pittsburgh waterfront, and supporting scientific research and testing to ensure that air and water are safe are all laudable endeavors. This work is all well within reason, and is in line with what the organization claims to stand for, but it should not give cover to the Heinz Endowments’ detrimental activities
By working to limit the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania, the Heinz Endowments has shown itself to be at odds with its own purported values. Its efforts would be better spent working to enrich the area through the funding of endeavors that improve its quality of life, express its values, and create meaningful good for the community rather than try to undo all of the progress that energy abundance has created for Pennsylvania.
While the region’s transition to natural gas has improved local air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the region’s most tangible environmental crisis has only grown more acute. Each year, 9 billion gallons of raw sewage and stormwater leak into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers. One is left to wonder why more Heinz dollars are not allocated toward resolving this genuine, pressing local crisis. While the Heinz Endowments has made some contributions to organizations working to solve the region’s water treatment issues, such as the six-figure totals it has given regularly to 3 Rivers Wet Weather, the response to this real threat has been weakened by disproportionate expenditures intended to hamstring safe energy development practices. Every dollar the Heinz Endowments grants to radical anti-energy activists is a dollar that will not work to improve quality of life and health for Pennsylvanians, but instead do just the opposite.
Meantime, a second water crisis has emerged. Since 2016, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) has failed consistently to comply with federal lead thresholds. In all but one six-month period since the lead issue became known, PWSA’s water samples have tested above the 15 parts per billion mark established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Lead exposure, according to the World Health Organization can have serious consequences for the health of children, by attacking their brains and central nervous systems, resulting in reduced intelligence quotient and attention span. While the Heinz Endowments has fomented hostility to energy producers, Pittsburgh has become a second Flint.
To show that it values meaningful environmental quality and the health of Pennsylvanians, the Heinz Endowments ought to put these water crises at the very top of its agenda.
Grant Impacts in Action
While some leaders in the state choose to lean into the benefits of natural gas and see the good it can bring to communities, some remain inexplicably in opposition. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has been particularly outspoken in this regard.
At the 2019 Climate Action Summit co-sponsored by the Heinz Endowments, Mayor Peduto voiced his opposition to new petrochemical facilities. This would include projects like the new Royal Dutch Shell plant that will turn the natural gas byproduct ethane into plastic pellets used to manufacture consumer goods. Construction of that plant, located along the Ohio River north of Pittsburgh in Beaver County, employs more than 5,000 people and will employ about 600 permanently after construction is completed.
Mayor Peduto also plans to send a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf expressing that “the expansion of this industry is an impediment to the region’s growth.” He could not be more wrong.
Politicians like Peduto sometimes fail to see what the people they serve actually care about. People in Pittsburgh are much more concerned with infrastructure problems like the bus that fell into a sinkhole downtown this autumn and ensuring that energy is available cheaply and reliably than they are with Peduto’s ivory tower anti-energy sentiments.
Natural gas and other energy resources power people’s lives. When politicians funded by well-heeled groups step inhibit energy freedom, regular people suffer. Energy costs skyrocket, jobs disappear, and people struggle to make ends meet. This reality seems remote from the mayor and from the board members of organizations like the Heinz Endowments, but for working and middle-class people across the state, it hits much closer to home.
When heating costs are high because of limited access to natural gas it isn’t the elites that notice the pinch. And it’s disingenuous for them to pretend that rising costs aren’t the outcome to limiting natural gas and other energy products. The price of everything from electricity to heating to consumer goods is impacted by these decisions, and when the decision-makers are divorced from reality, costs begin to soar and local prosperity dries up.
Pennsylvanians know this, and they’re pushing back. Peduto’s comments at the Climate Action Summit received significant backlash. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Peduto’s frequent ally, felt the need to reiterate his own support for natural gas in Pennsylvania during a KDKA radio interview following Peduto’s comments saying, “No city has benefited more from the shale revolution than the city of Pittsburgh. No region has benefited more. Not just our county, the entire region.”
Fitzgerald, a Democrat from Squirrel Hill, acknowledges the singular role that natural gas has played in bolstering the region’s wellbeing, and understands that to undercut its potential as Peduto and others seek to do significant harm to the area’s people and economy.
Even more telling, is the response of labor. Blue-collar workers know that they’ll be hit hardest. Darrin Kelly, firefighter and head of the Allegheny County Labor Council expressed their fear well, “When you make a comment that can clearly hurt the advancement of a region and their ability to feed their family and have a better life, that’s when it becomes an issue for us.” When people see politicians prizing their partisan aims over these very real needs, they get angry, and they make it known at the ballot box and with their support.
The Heinz Endowments and Pittsburgh’s political elites have lost their way. Natural gas is inextricably linked to the region’s flourishing. Further, the natural gas industry and other wealth creators represent exactly what Heinz seeks to foster: creative, community-enhancing solutions to the challenges we all face. The Heinz Endowments funds many worthwhile causes, but its millions of dollars in funding for anti-energy outfits like Pittsburgh 350 and EarthJustice do nothing but detract from opportunity and prosperity in the city of Pittsburgh and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a whole.